The Samaritan’s Dilemma: Should Government Help Your Neighbor?
by Deborah Stone
Nation Books, 2008
292 pages
Notes & Appendix

In her 1993 speech on health care, Hillary Clinton argued that America needed a new a “politics of meaning,” and was roundly criticized as being some kind of left wing, new-age kook. While then First Lady Clinton backed away from the phrase, almost twenty years later Deborah Stone is calling for the same thing.
In her slim but meaty volume, The Samaritan’s Dilemma, Stone, too, calls for a return to the altruism. (Rework) She is greatly distressed by disconnect too many Americans have to their government, and says that apathy, alienation and declining participation in the body politic are dangerous to the ideals of democracy. Stone is especially concerned that we have an entire generation of young people who have been brought up to believe that, as Ronald Reagan claimed in his first Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” These young people are extremely censorious, making knee-jerk judgments about people–the poor, homelss people, the unemployed–and treating them as though they are not part of the American landscape.

Stone says that since the 1970's the study of government and public policy have been led by economists who work on a win-lose continiuum. Altruism has been replaced by bean counting and an emphasis on self-help that would astonish even Horatio Alger. Politicians, particularly Republican ones, have replaced John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” with don’t even think about asking. Post-Regan America preaches that help is harmful, and has refused to recognize the difference between institutional problems and personal failures.

In the first chapter, entitled “The American Malaise,” Stone lays the groundwork for her argument. She recognizes that the American way of self reliance has deep roots, but argues strongly thath public policy must be based in morality for it is “. . .the deepest form of political power.” All the major faiths require us to care about and for others. Stone does not back away from the debate over trying to determine who is worthy of help; that is, how much, if any, do we owe our neighbors who have made bad choices when good ones were available? Where does social obligation end and individual responsibility begin? In the end, however, those questions do not matter for the real issue is that of deciding what kind of community we want to be. Stone uses the same yardstick used by the late United States Senator, Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey. At the end of the day, we will be measured by how we treat those on the margins of our society: the young, the weak, the sick, andn the poor.

In chapter two, the “Seven Bad Arguments Against Help”–the title forces the reader to recall the Seven Deadly Sins!–Stone dismantles the old bugaboos about how helping people strips them of dignity, initiative and responsibility, and makes for an attitude of entitlement. Again she measures this on the liberal/conservative continnum: “Conservatives tend to regard demand as a virtue in the market but a sin in the political sphere, especially when committed by the poor.” But altruism defies logic and is difficult to quantify. Moreover, the “paradox of altruism” is that the givers feel there are receiving mroe that they give. There is a social and physical impact with doing good which has as its byproduct the creating of a more civil society.

The most poignant part of the book, though, is the fourth chapter. In “The Semaritan’s Rebellion,” Stone tells story after story of how everyday people, regardless of their places on the socio-economic ladder, are willing to risk a great deal when they have an opportunity to right a wrong. Her interviews with those who provide health care to the poor and homebound speak of a peculiar kind of civil disobedience being practiced to ensure that clients do not go without the essentials: baths, food, but especially human contact. For every roadblock thrown up by the bureaucracy, these unsung heroes of the workplace–the ones who Jesse Jackson said “take the early bus to work”–find ways to emulate the Good Samaritan of the New Testament, even though they know that getting caught may cost them their jobs. Time and again they told Stone “It’s not right,” and with sometimes messianic zeal strived to make it so.

Using examples as diverse as Ayn Rand, the Bible, Ralph Waldow Emerson, and children’s literature, Stone makes a persusive case that hard-wired in the human psyche is the need and wish to do good and be good in a way that connects us to something and someone larger than ourselves. Stone also shows us that in what is clearly the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, Americans no longer have the luxury of wondering if they can help their neighbors, for we have become them.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard has joined the staff of the Free Press as our book critic. Dr. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.